A Guided Walking Tour of Vernazza

Introduce yourself to this village in Italy’s Cinque Terre through its characteristic town squares

Vernazza Italy street
Vernazza was once nicknamed "Little Venice" due to the series of romantic bridges that connected the two sides of the town before the main road was built. CuboImages srl / Images

This tour includes Vernazza’s characteristic town squares, and ends on its scenic breakwater.

From the train station, walk uphill until you hit the parking lot, with a bank, a post office, and a barrier that keeps out all but service vehicles. Vernazza’s shuttle buses run from here to the parking lot and into the hills. Walk to the tidy, modern square called...
Fontana Vecchia: Named after a long-gone fountain, this is where older locals remember the river filled with townswomen doing their washing. Now they enjoy checking on the baby ducks. The trail leads up to the cemetery. Imagine the entire village sadly trudging up here during funerals. (The cemetery is peaceful and evocative at sunset, when the fading light touches each crypt.)

Glad to be here in happier times, begin your saunter downhill to the harbor. Just before the Pensione Sorriso sign, on your right (big brown wood doors), you’ll see the...
Ambulance Barn: A group of volunteers is always on call for a dash to the hospital, 40 minutes away in La Spezia. Opposite from the barn is a big, empty lot. Like many landowners, the owner of Pensione Sorriso had plans to expand, but since the 1980s, the government said no. While some landowners are frustrated, the old character of these towns survives.

A few steps farther along (past the town clinic and library), you’ll see a...
World Wars Monument: Look for a marble plaque in the wall to your left, dedicated to those killed in the World Wars. Not a family in Vernazza was spared. Listed on the left are soldiers morti in combattimento, who died in World War I; on the right is the World War II section. Some were deported to Germania; others—labeled Part (stands for partigiani, or partisans)—were killed while fighting against Mussolini. Cynics considered partisans less than heroes. After 1943, Hitler called up Italian boys over 15. Rather than die on the front for Hitler, they escaped to the hills. They became “resistance fighters” in order to remain free.

The path to Corniglia leaves from here (behind and above the plaque). Behind you is a small square and playground, decorated with three millstones, once used to grind local olives into oil. There’s a good chance you’ll see an expat mom here at the village playground with her kids. I’ve met many American women who fell in love with a local guy, stayed, and are now happily raising families here. (But I’ve never met an American guy who moved in with a local girl.)

From here, Vernazza’s tiny river goes underground. Until the 1950s, Vernazza’s river ran openly through the center of town. Old-timers recall the days before the breakwater, when the river cascaded down and the surf crashed along Vernazza’s main drag. Back then, the town was nicknamed “Little Venice” for the series of romantic bridges that arched over the stream, connecting the two sides of the town before the main road was built.

Before the tracks (on the left), the wall has 10 spaces, one reserved for each party’s political ads during elections—a kind of local pollution control. The map on the right, under the railway tracks, shows the region’s hiking trails. Trail #2 is the basic favorite. The second set of tracks (nearer the harbor) was recently renovated to lessen the disruptive noise, but locals say it made no difference.

Follow the road downhill to...
Vernazza’s “Business Center”: Here, you’ll pass many locals doing their vasche (laps). At Enoteca Sotto l’Arco, Gerry and Paola sell wine—they can cork it and throw in plastic glasses—and delightful jars of local pesto, which goes great on bread (Wed–Mon 9:00–21:00, closed Tue, Via Roma 70). Next, you’ll pass the Blue Marlin Bar (Vernazza’s top nightspot) and the tiny Chapel of Santa Marta (the small stone chapel with iron grillwork over the window), where Mass is celebrated only on special Sundays. Farther down, you’ll walk by a grocery, gelateria, bakery, pharmacy, another grocery, and another gelateria. There are plenty of fun and cheap food-to-go options here.

On the left, in front of the second gelateria, an arch (with a peaceful little sitting perch atop it) leads to what was a beach, where the town’s stream used to hit the sea back in the 1970s. Continue down to the...

Harbor Square and Breakwater: Vernazza, with the only natural harbor of the Cinque Terre, was established as the sole place boats could pick up the fine local wine. The two-foot-high square stone at the foot of the stairs by the recommended Burgus Wine Bar is marked Sasso del Sego (stone of tallow). Workers crushed animal flesh and fat in its basin to make tallow, which drained out of the tiny hole below. The tallow was then used to waterproof boats or wine barrels. For more town history, step into the Burgus to see fascinating old photos of Vernazza on the wall.

On the far side (behind the recommended Ristorante Pizzeria Vulnetia), peek into the tiny street with its commotion of arches. Vernazza’s most characteristic side streets, called carugi, lead up from here. The trail (above the church, toward Monterosso) leads to a classic view of Vernazza.

Located in front of the harborside church, the tiny piazza—decorated with a river rock mosaic—is a popular hangout spot. It’s where Vernazza’s old ladies soak up the last bit of sun, and kids enjoy a patch of level ball field.

Vernazza’s harborfront church is unusual for its strange entryway, which faces east (altar side). With relative peace and -prosperity in the 16th century, the townspeople doubled the church in size, causing it to overtake a little piazza that once faced the west facade. From the square, use the “new” entry and climb the steps, keeping an eye out for the level necessary to keep the church high and dry. Inside, the lighter pillars in the back mark the 16th-century extension. Three historic portable crosses hanging on the walls are carried through town during Easter processions. They are replicas of crosses that Vernazza ships once carried on crusades to the Holy Land.

Finish your town tour seated out on the breakwater.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at [email protected], or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2010 Rick Steves

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.